Belgrade, May 2008. Celebrating the victory of the pro-EU coalition in general elections. (AFP)

Never mind the Balkans, here's Iceland

The enthusiasm with which member states have welcomed Reykjavik's request for accession to the EU is in marked contrast to the prudence — and in some cases hostility — which has greeted similar requests from the countries of ex-Yugoslavia and Turkey. But the EU cannot afford to give the impression that certain candidates enjoy special privileges.

Published on 31 July 2009 at 13:31
Belgrade, May 2008. Celebrating the victory of the pro-EU coalition in general elections. (AFP)

Having requested with unprecedented rapidity a decision from the Commission on Iceland's application to join the European Union, the governments of the EU are now concerned that they may have committed a political blunder, which tactlessly highlights the fact that the Balkan countries have been left kicking their heels with no definite information on when they will be allowed to join the Union.

European governments have probably had enough of enlargement, but there is nonetheless a consensus that rich stable and reliable countries like Iceland, Norway and Switzerland should naturally be included in the Union. The Balkans, which have traditionally been a powder keg in Europe, are regarded with suspicion — and in recent times, this prejudice has been reinforced by an aura of crime and corruption in Bulgaria and Romania, already members of the Union. Political analyst Daniel Korski, of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), believes the current context is characterized by the view that “Iceland should have long been part of the Union, whereas other potential candidates are still seeking to establish an appropriate identity.”

It took only two working days for EU foreign ministers to approve Iceland's accession request, which was submitted on 23 July. The contrast with the treatment of applications from Balkan countries could not be more marked. Macedonia, which submitted its application in March 2004, had to wait until December 2005 before it was accepted. Albania is still waiting for a response on its request, which was presented in April, because the 27 member states are still evaluating the probity of elections held there in June.

Now it is up to the Commission to decide if Iceland fulfills the criteria for accession: a stable democracy, a viable market economy and the capacity to comply with existing EU policies and legislation. Notwithstanding any noises to the contrary from the European commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, who insists that the evaluation of Reykjavik's application “will be conducted without favoritism in a rigorous and objective manner, and will take as long as is necessary” — the evaluation will be a pure formality, and a green light is expected in December. The governments of member states will then have to embark on an official process of negotiation. Given the links that have already been established between Iceland and the Union, this procedure could be completed as early as mid-2011, although negotiators will have to overcome significant differences on the issue of the country's fishing industry, which is a key aspect of Iceland's identity.

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Iceland has therefore been added to a list that already includes three other candidates — Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia — each of which are at different stages in the 35-chapter negotiation process. Macedonia is waiting for the opening of talks, which have been blocked by Greece's demand that the country change its name. Croatia was hoping to conclude negotiations this year, but a veto from Slovenia, which is demanding a resolution to a border dispute, will likely result in delays. Turkey, whose accession request was accepted in 1999, had to wait until 2005 before negotiations began — talks on 11 chapters are now underway, but eight others have been blocked following a request from Cyprus. In comparison, Iceland, which is included in the European Economic and Schengen Areas, already has agreement on 22 of the 35 negotiation chapters.

According to Carl Bildt, the Foreign Minister of Sweden which currently has the presidency of the EU, “there will be no fast-track procedure for Iceland” — however, the country will naturally benefit from its existing membership of the Schengen and Economic areas. In a bid to allay the frustration of other candidates, Bildt has promised that “the process of integrating Balkan countries will resume with a renewed dynamism in the autumn.” This is essential not only for the region, but also for the EU. In the light of results of the Serbian election in 2008, Brussels is well aware that the prospect of an open door to the EU is the best antidote ultra-nationalism in the Balkans, which would be made worse if there is no hope for European integration. Carl Bildt further believes that “the EU's credibility in the world is largely dependent on the manner in which we resolve problems on our own doorstep.”

As for the other Balkan countries, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina are all at different stages in the development of their relations with the EU. Preliminary talks with Serbia will not even be considered until it hands over General Ratko Mladic, one of the authors of the Srebrenica massacre, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague. Bosnia, which is beset by internal divisions, remains under international tutelage — and Kosovo still has to be recognized by all of the EU's member states.

As political analyst Daniel Korski points out, “Iceland, which belonged to Denmark until 1944, is a member of NATO and all other clubs. It could have joined the EU earlier which may explain the willingness to accelerate its integration. Iceland will likely be welcomed into the EU before Croatia.”

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